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An Alternate History of Genre Television, 1993-2009

February 25, 2011 at 7:01 pm

There are worlds, somewhere within this infinite multiverse, where genre television doesn't get consigned to the Friday night death slot.  Worlds where the most enjoyable shows don't automatically receive critical acclaim and deadly low ratings.  Worlds where promising and inventive genre television shows are allowed to find their legs and build an audience, rather than finding their fates determined by three episodes aired on two different nights of the week.

Those worlds are not this one.  But, oh, if only they were.

In many of these alternate timelines, the fate of genre television diverged from that in our world decades ago.   Somewhere, the original Star Trek wasn't cancelled in 1969; there, the show ran an additional three and a half seasons until a tragic fire on the set killed William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.  (The internet of that world is rife with conspiracy theories about that, by the way.  The name "Leonard Nimoy" is to genre fans of that world what "Brandon Lee" is to the genre-flavored conspiracy fringe of this world.)

But I'm not interested in the worlds that diverged in the 50s, 60s, 70s, or 80s.  I'm interested in the alternate timelines much closer to our own.

In our world, one genre show in the 90s managed to transcend the Friday night death slot and went on to become a major hit.  The result, unfortunately, is that The X-Files cast a long shadow for many years.  And that shadow is littered with the dessicated corpses of genre television shows that attempted to follow The X-Files programming formula, and which were executed for failing to catch the same lightning in the same bottle.

But what if network programming executives had recognized the success of The X-Files for what it was-- a nonrepeatable fluke?  What if they hadn't spent years flinging genre shows at Friday night like a drunken knife thrower giving one last, wobbly performance on a skeevy carnival midway?  What if the landscape of television ratings had never morphed into the razor-edged deathmatch it is today?

Let's look at one world that diverged from ours in the early 1990s.  In that world Friday night became a garden for good television, rather than the charnel house it became in our world.

1993 - 1999

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. proves the perfect pairing for The X-Files.  Together the shows dominate Friday night and genre television for two years.  Brisco County grows successful enough to stand on its own, and thus it is moved to Tuesday nights in order to free up that precious hour prior to The X-FilesBrisco County, Jr. doesn't perform quite as well in its new timeslot, but it still hangs on for two more satisfying seasons, finally closing in 1997 for a total run of 81 episodes.

(Unfortunately, the first and last Brisco County, Jr. convention is spectacularly unsuccessful owing to the unfortunate yet stubborn decision to call it "BrisCon".  The convention organizers lose their shirts.)

Strange Luck debuts in 1995.  The quirky show is a confusing change for many regular viewers of the Friday night lineup, which makes for shaky ratings at first.  But the audience grows (bolstered, of course, by the lead-in to The X-Files) to the extent that a second season becomes viable.  However, the 1996-1997 season recasts the male lead away from D. B. Sweeney, by focusing on the adventures of Chance Harper's long-lost brother.  Strange Luck lasts another two seasons on Friday night before succumbing to cancellation in 1998 after 54 episodes  It never achieves the kind of ratings needed to stand apart from The X-Files, but it does achieve a lasting form of pop-cultural relevance: the phrase "jelly canoe" improbably becomes a fixture in contemporary slang.

When Chris Carter's next show, Millennium, debuts in 1996, programming executives are wary of breaking up the X-Files/Strange Luck combination on Friday night.  (At the time, execs continue to look on Strange Luck as something with the potential to grow.)   Instead, they choose to make a bid for control of the other side of the weekend.  Millennium premieres on a Sunday night, and stays there for the rest of its three-season run.

Unlike the version of this show in our world, the tone and storyline of Millennium don't undergo an abrupt shift at the top of the third season.  Instead, the third season builds upon the bio-apocalypse witnessed at the end of the second season.  This makes for a much more satisfying story arc for viewers invested in the supernatural underpinnings of Frank Black's adventures.  It does, however, make for a profoundly dark third season.  Television audiences who squeamishly tuned in to Millennium's notoriously dark premiere season, and who hung around through the more disturbing twists of the second season, are finally turned away when the show becomes a supernatural, conspiracy-laden post-apocalyptic survival story.

The X-Files never moves to Sunday nights, even after the death of Millennium.

Carter's next project, Harsh Realm, never gets off the ground after the creators of the eponymous comic book series threaten to sue Fox for development credit.  They settle for an undisclosed sum.  The amount of the settlement remains a closely guarded secret, but Carter's development deal with Fox falters after the Harsh Realm incident.

2000 - 2008

The X-Files wraps in 2001 at the end of its eighth season.  The series had begun to limp after the departure of David Duchovny, but its finale is regarded as a tour de force.

In September of 2002, the SciFi Channel (which, incidentally, never changes its name to SyFy in this alternate universe, nor does it ever air professional wrestling) issues no announcement about suddenly opting to withdraw funding for the fifth season of Farscape.  The much beloved Australian-muppets-guns show lives on to a fifth and sixth season before coming to a bittersweet conclusion in 2005.

That same month sees the debut of Joss Whedon's Firefly.  The space western inherits the Friday night slot from the X-Files, and quickly becomes the 2000s' answer to that show's domination of 90s genre television.  Ratings are strong from the pilot episode onward, helped possibly by genre fans missing their Friday night fix.  The episodes of Firefly's first season are broadcast in the intended order.  As a result, the viewing audience grows significantly over the course of the season.

Firefly runs for a total of 6 seasons, from 2002 to 2008.  Christina Hendricks, whose character Saffron appears in two episodes of the first season and a pivotal four-episode arc in the second season, becomes popular enough to become a regular castmember in the third and fourth seasons.  Hendricks's spinoff series, Saffron, lasts for three seasons.  Much as Angel spun off from Buffy, it starts strong but falters when the show never quite achieves the strength and originality of its progenitor.

Dead Like Me gets another 15 episodes for a third season in 2005, and 7 more episodes in 2006, for a total run of 51 episodes.  The later seasons explore George's relationship to the gravelings, and expands the role of Crystal, the Happy Time receptionist with special forces training on her résumé.  No direct-to-DVD movies are ever made from the Dead Like Me franchise.

Journeyman debuts in 2007 and runs for 41 episodes over two seasons.  Its modest success spurs nostalgia in time-travel television shows, thus leading to the release in 2009 of a deluxe boxed set of the entire Quantum Leap series on digitially remastered DVDs.  That same nostalgia also leads to reruns of The Time Tunnel on late-night cable, but few people tune in.

Comments

Tengland February 25, 2011 at 11:57 pm
Does the alternate SciFi channel feature a show where a guy claims to talk to the dead? Or another show about guys claim to chase ghosts? Perhaps in that other universe ghosts and spirits are real, so the programs actually are reality shows. Plus, you left out the 10-part HBO series "Android Dreams," based on Phillip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" A mediocre filmmaker had tried to make it a movie in the 80s but the project collapsed because a script could never be agreed on. Liam Neeson won an an Emmy for his portrayal of Deckard, a man torn because of doubts about whether he's human or a replicant. The revelation that came at the last minute of the last scene of the last show took everyone by surprise, although clues had been laid from the very first scene. It solidified the reputation for the young screenwriter, name of Tregillis or something.
Scott Denning February 26, 2011 at 9:40 pm
(That's "television", not "transvestite".) I can see him now, seated upon the Couch of Decision, flail and Holy Remote in hands, his noble brow (beneath the HD Crown) furrowed in his considerations, weighing and balancing the Probabilities of the Storylines, deciding the fates of Created Worlds. As I sit here in my Captain Malcolm tightpants, a "Browncoat -- I Aim to Misbehave" t-shirt warming my torso, I too yearn for some of these alternate realities of fictions. As does Captain Mal himself, in his alternate guise of Nathan Fillion, whose offhand comment that "if I won the lottery I would buy the rights to Firefly" started a resurgence of hopeful surges among Browncoats everywhere. Quite the dream to think that fans could get together enough pledges to purchase a franchise. But... Perhaps enough buzz to make some execs somewhere think they are missing out on more $$$? Now you have me dwelling upon Pleasant Possibilities of dwelling in more Shiny Fictions rather than acidly ruminating over the Stinkin' Shames that are some of our Serial Realities. One of the Pleasant Possibilities is more of Christian Hendricks. "Saffron", indeed. Just last night (as I watched some episodes in honor of Nathan's verbalized daydream) I was betting with myself how long it would have been for her to join the crew of Serenity, curvaceous provocative embodiment of all of the tensions aboard. I have a tender spot for Saffron (beyond the very obvious reasons.) While I have never heard him admit to it, I believe that Joss Whedon grew up as I did: reading the Stainless Steel Rat series and hoping beyond hope that I could end up being enough of a man to handle the lovely Angelina, Slippery Jim's brilliant beautiful sociopathic bride. I am convinced that Saffron *is* Angelina, as brought out by Whedon. But now that I have presented this theory, he will probably kill me off as seems to be his way of coping with every man who might come between him and his exceptional female characters. Best case scenario: The fans generate enough buzz (aided by the Science Channel showing Firefly, hyped by the blitz of commercials tripled since the fan buzz) that some execs let Serenity fly again and we get some more of that world plus some opportunities to write some episodes or at least some of the tie-in novels. To which thought I say, "I'll be in my bunk." Take me out to the black, tell 'em I ain't comin' back, -=Scott=- Sometimes I'm Jayne. Sometimes I'm Mal. I used to be Simon, but I got over it. And sometimes I aspire to be Book...
Ian February 26, 2011 at 11:24 pm
Unfortunately that Tregillis screenwriter died tragically young when his Maybach careered into Topanga canyon after a party at David Fincher's house. Neeson deserved that award, though. In the alternate-TV universe, the talks-with-dead-people guy was burned at the stake for witchcraft.
Ian February 26, 2011 at 11:30 pm
I knew there was a reason I felt a kinship with you, good sir: anyone who grew up on the Stainless Steel Rat books is top-drawer in my book. Ah, Slippery Jim... How you made my junior high school years bearable. And how often have I dreamt of being the Rat himself? The charm, the wit, the derring do, the savoir-faire. I was just thinking about the SSR books not 3 hours ago. You, sir, have read my mind. (What's your opinion of the later SSR books? A new one just came out, but I'm skeptical. The original novellas cast a long shadow over their successors, don't they?) Never occurred to me that Mal's Saffron is a modern reexpression of Jim's Angelina. But of course she is! How perfect. Now, if every American donates just $1 to the cause, Fillion will soon have his $300 million, and we'll have more Firefly. And, hence, more Saffron. (She was totally destined for a castmember role on that show. And Jubal Early was far too rich for a one-off.)
Scott Denning February 27, 2011 at 12:04 pm
-- of the SyFy Network. As beloved as they are to me those earlier SSR stories (re-read to the point of mulching the books), the later ones don't do much for me. Self-referential can be fun, but can start to feel recycled... Admittedly, I haven't given them a try for a while. Does not detract from the characters overall, though. On namesakes: Angelina-sensitized as I am it early occurred to me to consider Angelina Jolie for the movie role. And y'know what? It fits. We have seen enough of her in a variety of roles to know that she can do icy-cool, murderous-hot, crazy-chaotic, sexy-magnetic, and mother-protective. And action-figure athletic. Which raises the question of who might fill Jim's shoes. The obvious connection is Brad Pitt, who has earned my respect but I am still not quite sure that he is ideal. The energy between the couple might work, though. Why look -- somehow, mysteriously, "Firefly" is on the screen again. Go, Mal. You can make it to repair the engine. Recently revamped the theater system, redid the wiring and tweaked the surround sound. Had not really watched Firefly on the HD widescreen -- more listened to the familiar words as one might a radio play while doing other things. But it is a whole new experience -- with the subwoofer up you can *feel* Serenity alive around you. But now, gorramit, they've released a Blu-Ray set! Which the reviews say is not quite night&day in comparison to the DVD set but is definitely in a different time zone, especially as regards the sound. So now I have to get a Blu-Ray player... I just received a shipment in aid of further Firefly costumery. And it is indeed the same thing that the costumers on the show used to create Mal's distinctive suspenders: Israeli military surplus combat webbing. Which raises the point that for the new iteration of the series we have to reveal that several of the moons were settled by the Lost Tribes of Israel, or at least a more modern diasporic version thereof. Now I have to start working on Mal's coat... (While thinking about storylines for the Firefly tie-in novel series that didn't happen) I brought back Jubal Early. He comes after River again, serving as a hunting dog for the Alliance, but ends up killing an Agent when his peculiar code of honor is insulted. Then he goes off to an obscure moon to found a monastery which is actually a front for a training academy for "Lion Assassins", dark analog to Inara's companion academy. (In a later installment Jayne spends a few weeks at Jubal's school to pick up fresh mayhem pointers, and comes back deadlier but more thoughtful -- despite himself, he has absorbed some of the philosophical teachings. Jubal tries to get Book to guest-lecture, and we are left wondering if it will happen. River teaches a class in her distinctive KillDance style; Jayne proves surprisingly graceful after the inevitable guffaw-producing first attempts.) They can't take the sky from me, -=Scott=-
Ian February 27, 2011 at 9:38 pm
Completely agreed on the later SSR books. I met Slippery Jim when I was in junior high school, which isn't the age for great literary discernment. So some of the "middle phase" SSR books read perfectly well to me. But years later I picked up the series again, and the "late phase" SSRs just don't do it for me like the earlier adventures. Oddly enough, and apropos of this discussion, I turned on the TV for some company while eating dinner and landed in the final 10 minutes of Serenity-- stuck the fork into my pad thai during River's KillDance scene. I would read a book about Jubal Early. I would read a series of books about him. Who do I have to bribe so that they'll let you write them?
Andrew February 28, 2011 at 12:12 pm
-- me not keeping up with the clevernesses of the threads-ha -- My brother and I have a theory about Luck Packets. Then the show Strange Luck came along. Strange Luck was one of my favs, though I haven't thought about it in a long time. I wonder how much Strange luck influenced my Anthony stories... Either way fun flashback, my own quantum leap.
Ian February 28, 2011 at 10:20 pm
I liked Strange Luck, too. And Quantum Leap was a favorite of mine. I know somebody who speaks of Luck Storms, and quite convincingly!
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